Affecting, surreal and starkly unsettling, this Noomi Rapace-starring folk-horror delight focuses on a grieving couple and their farm's newest arrival.
October 14, 2021
Just over a decade ago, Noomi Rapace was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, too. After starring in the first film adaptations of Steig Larsson's best-selling Millennium books, the Swedish actor then brought her penchant for simmering ferocity to Alien prequel Prometheus, and to movies as varied as erotic thriller Passion, crime drama The Drop and Australian-shot thriller Angel of Mine. But Lamb might be her best role yet, and best performance. A picture that puts her silent film era-esque features to stunning use, it stares into the soul of a woman not just yearning for her own modest slice of happiness, but willing to do whatever it takes to get it. It also places Rapace opposite a flock of sheep, and has her cradle a baby that straddles both species; however, this Icelandic blend of folk-horror thrills, relationship dramas and even deadpan comedy is as human as it is ovine.
At first, Lamb is all animal. Something rumbles in the movie's misty, mountainside farm setting, spooking the horses. In the sheep barn, where cinematographer Eli Arenson (Hospitality) swaps arresting landscape for a ewe's-eye view, the mood is tense and restless as well. Making his feature debut, filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson doesn't overplay his hand early. As entrancing as the movie's visuals prove in all their disquieting stillness, he keeps the film cautious about what's scaring the livestock. But Lamb's expert sound design offers a masterclass in evoking unease from its very first noise, and makes it plain that all that eeriness, anxiety and dripping distress has an unnerving — and tangible — source.
The farm belongs to Rapace's Maria and her partner Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason, A White, White Day), who've thrown themselves into its routines after losing a child. They're a couple that let their taciturn faces do the talking, including with each other, but neither hides their delight when one ewe gives birth to a hybrid they name Ada. Doting and beaming, they take the sheep-child into their home as their own. Its woolly mother stands staring and baa-ing outside their kitchen window, but they're both content in and fiercely protective of their newfound domestic happiness. When Ingvar's ex-pop star brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) arrives unexpectedly, they don't even dream of hiding their new family idyll — even as he's initially shocked and hardly approving.
Jóhannsson isn't one for telling rather than showing, as Lamb's sparse dialogue ensures. That said, he doesn't unveil Ada a second before he needs to, either. While Maria has a little lamb and its fleece is as white as snow, the film spends much of its first half revelling in how the creature's arrival drastically alters the household's mood. Lamb is firmly a tone poem, in fact, living, bleating and breathing in its titular critter's wake. Something sinister still dwells — and recurrent shots of Iceland's towering surroundings still ripple with foreboding — but Maria and Ingvar have eagerly snatched up what bliss they can. Smartly, when the revealing shot comes, and also when Ada keeps being seen in all her human-animal glory (courtesy of live animals and children, plus CGI and also puppetry), Jóhannsson's winning mix of anticipation and playfulness isn't shorn away.
It's easy to spy another picture from this part of the world with an ovine focus and think of Rams (the original, not the 2020 Australian remake). Recalling A White, White Day's musing on grief and its stunning use of wintry landscapes is just as straightforward as well. Throw in the fact that Lamb frolics forth from US distributor A24 — home to fellow folk-horror hits The Witch and Midsommar, the nightmarishly atmospheric Hereditary and The Lighthouse, and the dark and discomforting The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with the company's moniker now accepted in filmic circles as shorthand for a particular type of indie flick — and believing you know what's in store is equally understandable. But like Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and Yorgos Lanthimos, the directors behind those aforementioned features, Jóhannsson has made a disquieting and dazzling movie that couldn't be more distinctive. Indeed, just as Ada is her own creature, Lamb is its own singular film.
Nursery rhyme nods and fairy tale-like touches add extra layers to Lamb's contemplation of parenthood, loss and all the stress that comes with each; however, the movie's religious symbolism is less effective. Christmas songs echo, placing the film at a time of year already loaded with meaning. A manger obviously exists on the farm, too. Also, having a woman called Maria embrace motherhood after a miraculous birth clearly isn't an accidental move on Jóhannsson and co-screenwriter Sjón (an Icelandic poet and frequent Bjork collaborator's) behalf. What rings loudest among these inclusions is the notion of grasping onto whatever you need to in order to understand and endure all that life throws your way. Lamb is also a movie about nature versus nurture, so brooding over the impact of choices both overt and innate cosily resides in the same paddock.
Enticing, surreal and starkly unsettling all at once, Lamb also benefits from exceptional animal performances — it won the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for Palm Dog, the prestigious event's awards for best canine acting — and its own savvy. It nabbed Un Certain Regard Prize of Originality at Cannes as well, but the movie's shrewdness isn't limited to its standout concept. Each patient shot that roves over the hillside, peeks through the fog, and soaks in the strain and pressure is just as astute. Each rustle, huff and jangle in the film's soundscape proves the same. Every aesthetic decision paints Lamb in unease and uncertainty, in fact, and lets its lingering gaze towards the steely Rapace, affecting Guðnason and their four-legged co-stars unleash an intense and absurdist pastoral symphony of dread and hope, bleakness and sweetness, and terror and love.